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The inconvenient truth about budget cuts

The message from Congress is clear: inconvenience trumps hunger.

Several weeks ago, Congress passed the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, giving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the flexibility to spend up to $253 million of its current budget to ensure that more flights depart on time. As a frequent flyer, I certainly appreciate it when my flight takes off on schedule. However, as the president of Bread for the World, I find lawmakers’ swift action on air travel irresponsible, considering that people living in hunger still face drastic cuts to anti-poverty programs.

{mosads}Sequestration refers to automatic budget cuts that will continue over the next decade, with deeper cuts each year. The cuts were designed to strike programs across the federal budget equally. But the FAA legislation suggests a potential trend toward accommodating some programs while ignoring others.

Because of sequestration cuts, 4 million fewer meals will be served to seniors this year. Seventy thousand children will be denied Head Start. More than 2 million people living in extreme poverty abroad will lose some or all access to food aid.

Next year the effects will be even worse, throwing hundreds of thousands of children out of Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the domestic program that ensures that the most vulnerable members of our society get the nutrition they need to achieve their potential. Every year that sequestration remains in place, the damage will be greater.

But at least travelers will be able to make their connecting flights.  

Of course, people forget about hunger if they don’t see it around them or in the media. Based on congressional action and news coverage, few middle-class Americans may realize that sequestration is doing the most harm to the poorest people in the world. With the focus on air travel, many people do not realize that the reach of these cuts is deep and wide — from the four-year-old in Michigan who cannot return to Head Start to the farmer in Senegal who will lose access to development programs that give his children a chance in life.

Compounding the drastic sequestration cuts, the farm bill is up for reauthorization this year. Drafts of the bill include substantial reductions to additional programs that support hungry and poor people. Leaders of the House Agriculture Committee recently decided to cut SNAP (formerly food stamps) by $20 billion in its version of the farm bill. This cut is even more severe than the proposed reduction in last year’s version.

Since the economic downturn, the number of Americans who rely on SNAP to survive month to month has doubled. In the next few weeks, we will watch with keen interest as the House and Senate mark up their versions of the bill. Will they take away the main source of food for millions of underemployed and unemployed Americans?

Budgeting is about choices, priorities and values. What does it say about us as a country that we rush to soothe the impatience of travelers, but fail to make sure that seniors are fed? What does it say that our elected leaders are willing to slash the main program that fights hunger in this country, but refrain from cutting subsidies to agribusiness?

At its core, sequestration is bad policy, focusing all of its cuts on a small portion of the budget without addressing the larger issues of taxes and entitlements. If Congress is serious about responsibly reducing the deficit, lawmakers must prioritize hunger and poverty. This will require Congress to challenge powerful interest groups and focus on the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society.  

When angry passengers waiting at airports across the country flooded their congressional offices with phone calls and tweets, change was swift. Call, write, and tweet your senators and representative now and tell them to restore anti-poverty funding and make no cuts to SNAP.

Beckmann is president of Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.


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